Human Rights and Discrimination Protection

The Dial-A-Law library is prepared by lawyers and gives practical information on many areas of law in British Columbia. Script 236 gives information only, not legal advice. If you have a legal problem or need legal advice, you should speak to a lawyer. For the name of a lawyer to consult, call the Lawyer Referral Service at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland or 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in British Columbia.

BC’s Human Rights Code prohibits some types of discrimination, and the BC Human Rights Tribunal handles discrimination complaints. This script explains the types of discrimination the Code prohibits, how to complain to the Tribunal, and what the Tribunal does with complaints. The Code is available at www.bclaws.ca. Also, check the following scripts for more information:

  • 270, called “Protection Against Job Discrimination”
  • 271, called “Sexual Harassment”
  • 230, called “Charter of Rights and Freedoms: Overview”

This script does not deal with:

  • The Canadian Human Rights Act, which covers businesses and activities regulated by federal law. These include banks, airlines and airports, phone companies, and the federal government. If your case involves federal law, contact the Canadian Human Rights Commission at www.chrc-ccdp.ca or phone 604.666.2251 in Vancouver and 1.800.999.6899 elsewhere in BC. If you don’t know whether to contact the Tribunal or the Commission, contact either of them—they can tell you which one can handle your complaint.
  • Municipal laws, which may also prohibit some types of discrimination—contact your city hall for information on them.

What types of discrimination does the BC Human Rights Code prohibit?
The Code prohibits discrimination based on any of the following 16 things, called grounds:

  • race
  • colour
  • ancestry
  • place of origin
  • political belief—this applies only to employment, employment ads, and membership in a union or occupational association
  • religion
  • marital status
  • family status—this does not apply to the purchase of property
  • physical disability, including HIV and AIDS
  • mental disability
  • sex
  • sexual orientation
  • age (if you’re 19 and above)—this does not apply to the purchase of property
  • criminal or summary convictions unrelated to employment or membership—this applies only to employment, and membership in a union or occupational association
  • lawful source of income (this applies only to tenancies)
  • retaliation (taking action against a person who complained to the Tribunal, was named in a complaint, was a witness, or helped someone with a complaint)

The Code prohibits discrimination in the following 8 areas:

  • tenancy premises (renting property)—section 10
  • accommodation, service, and facility—section 8
  • publication—section 7
  • purchase of property (including commercial and residential property, bare land, and leases)—section 9
  • employment ads—section 11
  • wages—section 12 (this is about wage differences based on sex)
  • employment—section 13
  • membership in unions and occupational associations—section 14

Not all 16 grounds apply to all 8 areas—some of the exceptions are described below. Human rights cases often involve the first three areas—here are more details on them:

1.    Tenancy premises (renting property)—section 10
No person, including property owners, landlords, and building managers, can refuse to rent a space (for example, an office or an apartment) or charge a higher rent or security deposit, or otherwise discriminate against a tenant based on the grounds in section 10 of the Code. In addition, a person cannot normally stop a tenant from using common facilities. For example, in most cases, a person can’t prevent a tenant with a physical disability from using the pool. However, a person can restrict rentals as follows:

  • a person looking for a roommate to share their own place can restrict the rental to people based on any ground
  • rentals can be restricted to people over 55—or couples or families with one member over 55—in some cases
  • rentals may also be restricted to people with mental or physical disabilities—if the residence is designed for people with disabilities—in some cases

2.    Accommodations, services, and facilities—section 8
Restaurants, hotels, and other service providers can’t refuse service, charge higher rates, or discriminate in any other way based on the grounds in section 8 of the Code. Governments and educational institutions cannot discriminate in providing accommodations, services, and facilities. However, the Code applies only to accommodations, services, and facilities normally available to the public. As well, the Code allows:

  • public facilities to be restricted by sex (washrooms, change rooms).
  • insurance companies to distinguish based on sex and mental and physical disability by charging different premiums and paying different benefits.

3.    Publications—section 7
The Code says no person can publish or publicly display a statement, notice, publication, symbol, emblem, or sign if it shows an intention to discriminate or if it is likely to expose a person or group of people to hatred or contempt based on the grounds in section 7 of the Code. However, the Code doesn’t apply to communications intended to be private, meaning not published nor publicly displayed.

Exceptions and special programs under the Human Rights Code 
Charitable, philanthropic, religious, educational, and other non-profit organizations and corporations may be able to give a preference to certain people. The organization's primary purpose must be to promote the interests and welfare of a group of persons identified by a physical or mental disability, or a common race, age, religion, sex, marital status, political belief, colour, ancestry, or place of origin.

In addition, organizations can ask the Tribunal to approve a specific program or activity as a Special Program under the Code. The purpose of the program or activity must be to improve conditions for a disadvantaged group. For example, in the past the Tribunal approved a school district hiring a member of a protected group to provide services to students and families who are members of that same group.

Duty to accommodate
The Code prohibits acts or omissions that have a discriminatory effect and may require reasonable steps to remove the discriminatory effect. This is called the duty to accommodate to the point of undue hardship. For example, a restaurant or apartment building may have to provide a ramp for people who use wheelchairs. Many human rights cases involve complaints where an employee believes that their employer has not adequately accommodated their disability. 

Accommodation requires an employer and an employee (and an employee’s union if the workplace is unionized) to work together to find a practical solution that accommodates the complainant’s disability in a way that does not create an undue hardship on the employer. Accommodation to the point of “undue” hardship means that an employer may have to accept some hardship. That hardship might involve expense, inconvenience, or disruption—as long as it does not unduly interfere with the business. What constitutes “undue” hardship, however, can vary from case to case. Consider meeting with a lawyer to determine whether your own circumstances are likely to meet the criteria.

The Code does not define disability, but cases have determined that a disability generally indicates a state that is involuntary, has some degree of permanence, and impairs the person's ability, in some way, to carry out the normal functions of life.

The duty to accommodate requires that all the parties engage in the process of trying to discover ways to accommodate, even if ultimately no accommodation can be found. The failure to engage in the process can be a breach in itself. A person requesting accommodation is entitled only to a “reasonable” rather than a perfect accommodation. There may have to be some compromise from both parties.

Also, any request for accommodation must be supported by medical evidence. 

What can you do if someone discriminates against you?
Get a complaint form from the Human Rights Tribunal, fill it in, and file it with the Tribunal within 6 months of when the discrimination happened. For example, if the discrimination happened on July 30, 2015, you must file the complaint by January 30, 2016. If you wait more than 6 months to file your complaint, you have to explain on the form why you are filing late. The Tribunal may accept a late complaint if it is in the public interest and won’t harm anyone.

You can get a complaint form from the Tribunal website, the Tribunal office, and government agents. You can file a complaint in person, by mail, fax, courier, or email.

The Tribunal has guides and information sheets on the Code, the Tribunal, how to make and file a complaint, how to respond to a complaint, and many other topics. To get this material, see the Tribunal website at www.bchrt.bc.ca or phone the Tribunal at 604.775.2000 in Vancouver and 1.888.440.8844 elsewhere in BC. 

What is the Human Rights Tribunal?
The Tribunal is the organization that deals with complaints under the Code. It operates like a court, but is less formal. It consists of staff and members who hold hearings into complaints that are not settled. Members are experts in human rights law who are appointed by the BC government. Tribunal proceedings and material are normally public.

Do you need help filing a complaint?
The Human Rights Clinic may be able to help you file a complaint with the Tribunal and help you at a hearing. The clinic is a project of the BC Human Rights Coalition and the Community Legal Assistance Society. In addition, an onsite consultation service is offered every Monday between 9:30 am and 3:30 pm at the Tribunal's offices in Vancouver. For details, see the BC Human Rights Clinic website at www.bchrc.net or phone 604.689.8474 in Vancouver and 1.877.689.8474 elsewhere in BC.

What happens when you file a complaint?
The Tribunal can handle complaints only if the Code covers them. It also considers if there is enough information to support a possible violation of the Code. So it is important to give all the information that supports your complaint.

So first, the Tribunal must decide if the Code covers your complaint. If it does, the Tribunal will ask the person or business you complained about, called the respondent, to reply to your complaint. The respondent can ask the Tribunal to dismiss your complaint without a hearing. The Tribunal will try to help you and the respondent settle the complaint, first by holding a settlement meeting. If you can’t settle the case, a Tribunal member may hold a hearing. The member will decide if the complaint is justified, and if it is, the Tribunal can order a remedy. The decision for this order can be either oral or written.

What remedies can the Tribunal order?
Remedies are designed to reverse the effects of discrimination, not to punish the person or business that discriminated. They can include an order that the person or business that discriminated must do any of the following:

  • stop discriminating
  • make available the right, opportunity, or privilege that you didn’t get because of the discrimination (for example, give you your job back, or the right to compete for a job)
  • pay you money—called damages—for lost income (including wages and disability and other benefits) and expenses
  • the Tribunal can also order the person or business that discriminated to pay you damages for injury to your dignity, feelings, and self respect. There are no limits to the amount of an injury to dignity award, but one of the highest amounts awarded by the Tribunal award was $35,000 in June 2009. 

What if you disagree with the Tribunal’s decision?
You can apply to the BC Supreme Court to review the Tribunal’s decision. That can be complicated and you probably need legal help to do so. The Tribunal has information sheets on judicial review on its website at www.bchrt.bc.ca.

What else can you do?
Talk to a lawyer about all your legal options. For the name of a lawyer, call Lawyer Referral at 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland and 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in BC.

If the discrimination is at your place of work and you belong to a union, the union may be able to help you. As well, the Employment Standards Act may cover your case and you may have a wrongful dismissal claim—check scripts 270, 280, and 241 for more details. The BC Ministry of Justice also has information on human rights protection on its website at www.ag.gov.bc.ca/human-rights-protection.

Are there time limits for filing a complaint and suing?
Yes, there are time limits in both cases. You have 6 months from when the discrimination occurs to file a complaint with the Tribunal. If you wait longer than 6 months, the Tribunal may still accept your complaint, but you will have to explain why you delayed. 

There are also time limits for suing in court—you need legal advice about that.

If you complain to the Tribunal and also file a complaint (or grievance) with a union or under the Employment Standards Act, or if you sue the employer for wrongful dismissal, the Tribunal can wait until your other complaints or lawsuit are finished before dealing with your complaint.

[updated April 2015]

The above was last reviewed for accuracy by Jack Montpellier.


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